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Aborigines are the whipping boys again

30 June 2011

At http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/06/did-australian-aborigines-… there is a report on a paper in Geophysical Research Letters that claims Aborigines burnt old vegetation from the landscape in the hot dry season in order to help stimulate regrowth during the upcoming rainy season (the monsoon rains of northern Australia and the Darwin peninsular). Actually, this very clever bit of human husbandry of the landscape is now being frowned upon as a team of climate science researchers have simulated the effects of such fires and what might have happened if they had not started said fires. The computer gave them the answer that burning vegetation caused the rains to be delayed (how do you delay a monsoon?). In delaying when the rains actually came, by a few days it would seem, greater strain was placed on the environment and biodiversity in general. Apparently, they did not evaluate the benefit to the Aborigines – fresh shoots of young growth rather than leathery textured chewy food with young growth sprouting out of stalks instead of the roots. Note – no actual field research seems to have been done – somebody was playing around in front of a computer screen. What I find interesting about this is why might the Aborigines have got the idea of setting fire to the landscape? How did they know it generated fresh growth unless they had witnessed natural fires with the same end result, and if so, how many fires in the archaeological landscape were ignited by humans or nature (such as lightning). What else might have caused natural landscape fires? We may actually be back in the shadowy world of Dream Time – imitation of the ancestor gods. Pity the research did not involve questioning the Aborigines themselves.

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